From the December 1986 issue of Car and Driver.
One century and a few zillion miles by automobile later, the thrill of self-propulsion hasn’t diminished an iota. We know this is an absolute fact now that we’ve had the rare pleasure of driving a replica of the original automobile, described by Carl Benz in his 1886 patent.
The startup ritual is a trip in itself. White gas and water are added to the appropriate brass reservoirs behind the seat. The engine oilers are topped off with 30-weight. The carburetor is adjusted with a knurled knob located just under the seat. The ignition is switched on, and the trembler coil sounds for all the world like a modern-day key buzzer. Exposed crankshaft journals are lubricated with a squirt or two of oil, and the cylinder is primed with a fuel-air mix by giving the massive horizontal flywheel a few swings back and forth. Finally, the big wheel is spun rapidly, until the Benz engine fumph-fumph-sneeze-fumphs to life.
The commotion that follows is vintage hurdy-gurdy: ringing gears, occasional small-caliber pops, frantic shaking, and the steady throb of primeval power. A mist of oil spray and partly burned fuel forms over the machinery, and the 0.88-hp three-wheeler is ready to ride.
The climb aboard is awkward but not as big a chore as mounting a horse. The small leather bench is reasonably comfortable, and the weight of a human on top of it damps some of the wild vibration. Managing the controls is child’s play. There is no throttle to worry about, because the engine runs virtually flat out all the time. Where you expect to find a steering wheel, there is a delicate tiller with a pointer attached to it: aim the pointer left and you go left, right and you turn right. Benz was clearly onto something here. A hand lever to the left of the seat takes care of everything else: you pull it back to apply power to the rear wheels, push it forward for neutral, and shove it farther forward to brake.
The fumph-fumphs are fewer and further between as the engine shoulders the load. Gradually it settles into a strained but steady cadence; with each piston stroke, you feel as if a soft battering ram were thumping your solar plexus. When your hair wafts up and off your forehead in the breeze, you know you’re flat out.
The term “acceleration” doesn’t quite fit a Benz in the act of forward motion. It gathers speed like a fog bank cresting a hill. Any kid on foot could beat it in a race.
The Benz’s chassis dynamics are identical to those you’d experience while riding a kitchen stool propped on top of a wheelchair. From your precarious perch, the wide eyes of the assembled masses blur by at knee level. Your eyes show no terror, though, because the inner ear acts as a gyrostabilizer, quickly settling your qualms and automatically applying the requisite body English while slowing or turning. Hard braking, full-power cornering, and breathless blasts of oil-spitting speed soon become comfortable maneuvers.
It isn’t long before the hardworking Benz needs a break. As the engine boils off its supply of cooling water and the friction drive begins to warm and stretch the leather transmission belt, there is noticeably less power to play with. On our gradually sloping test strip, the three-wheeler demonstrates a distinct preference for the down direction. With the grade in our favor, we can easily exceed 10 mph (clocked by the photo car’s speedometer), but outside assistance is necessary on the uphill leg. Two tireless Mercedes-Benz technicians, Ernst Thiel and Hermann Stehling, supply people power from behind and keep a close watch over the machinery.
Apprentices at the Mercedes-Benz factory constructed this replica of the original Benz Patentwagen and 32 other historic recreations for this year’s anniversary-of-the-automobile celebration. Eleven duplicates each of Gottlieb Daimler’s 1885 motor bicycle, his 1886 four-wheel motor carriage, and Benz’s three-wheeler were crafted in loving detail to give visitors to museums and expositions around the globe an opportunity to study these forebear of the modem automobile.
Interestingly enough, the three-wheel replicas deviate significantly from the patent drawings registered by Carl Benz on January 29, 1886. The notable discrepancies are in the layout of the frame, the steering linkage, the seat design, the fuel tank location, and the type of radiator. There is no evidence of brakes in the original patent drawings, either, though they were mentioned in Benz’s written disclosure. What the replicas do mimic is the oldest Benz trike still in existence, an artifact owned by the Deutsches Museum in Munich. Some historians mark it as the one true original, but the number of discrepancies between it and Benz’s drawings support the theory that it’s a slightly later development of his Patentwagen. Given the disagreement on how to spell Benz’s first name (both “Carl” and “Karl” are widely used), it’s easy to see how the historical record can lapse now and then.
No archivists were on hand to document the birth of the automobile, because no one—not even the inventors—had an inkling of its ramifications. Carl Benz was an engine developer and dreamer who enjoyed little commercial success either before or for quite some time after receiving his patent. The epic document was modestly titled Vehicle with Gas-driven Engine. His specific patent claims were only two: a driver-adjustable fuel-air mixing device and the use of a shift lever both to move a drive belt and to actuate brakes.
Griffith Borgeson, a former C/D contributor and current European editor of Automobile Quarterly (AQ), brings the details of the patent to light in a recent AQ commemorative to Mercedes-Benz. He goes on to list a significant number of inventions that were ready and waiting on the shelf when Benz built the Patentwagen. Rubber tires, wire wheels, ball bearings, roller chain, rack-and-pinion steering, differential drive gearing, lightweight steel frames—and even fully engineered and commercially available two-seat velocipedes—all were in existence in the early 1880s, according to Borgeson’s research.
It’s clear that Benz didn’t create the first automobile lock, stock, and cylinder barrel from scratch. What he did do was combine three crucial elements—an engine with adequate power, a lightweight chassis, and petroleum-based fuel—in such a way that a patent could be issued and systematic development carried out.
Several years of tinkering with two-stroke engines lay behind Benz’s invention. Convinced that automobility would be possible if a reasonable power-to-weight ratio could be achieved, he dreamed of building a vehicle that “runs under its own power like a locomotive, but not on tracks, but like a wagon simply on any street.” Four-stroke engines patented by Nikolaus Otto in 1877 led the way. They achieved a phenomenal 100 horsepower (for stationary use) by 1880, and tens of thousands of the engines themselves and licenses to build them were sold around the world. Other manufacturers, envious of Otto’s technology, waged a legal battle to break his hold on it; meanwhile, Carl Benz spent his time experimenting in secret. In the fall of 1884 he began work on a four-stroke, benzine-burning engine. It was running well enough by the following year to propel a three-wheeler around his courtyard. Confident that he had something to boast about and that Otto’s claim to the four-stroke engine would soon be broken, Benz filed for a patent. Ironically, it was issued only one day before the German supreme court ruled against Otto.
The Benz three-wheeler is a fascinating mix of short-lived features and ideas that have stood the test of time. It rides on only three wheels because Benz hadn’t yet devised a way to steer a four-wheeler. (He found one in 1893.) The flywheel is positioned horizontally because Benz believed that the inertia of a heavy mass spinning vertically would make steering difficult. Benz’s engine wasn’t as powerful or as fast-running as others of the time, but it incorporated several prophetic details: positive intake- and exhaust-valve actuation, a float-controlled and exhaust-heated carburetor, and an ignition system comprising a spark plug, a battery, a coil, and breaker points.
One of the weakest aspects of the three-wheeler was its cooling system. A water jacket around the cylinder barrel was fed by a gallon reservoir located above. Circulation was supposed to take place by the thermosiphon method (steam rising to the reservoir and recondensing), but the system was practically a total-loss design and had to be replenished every mile or so.
Bertha Benz gave Carl two sons, three daughters, and a road test. In 1888, tired of her husband’s incessant tinkering and lack of commercial success, she decided that a convincing demonstration might help get the automobile business rolling. Without Carl’s knowledge, Bertha took her sons and a developmental three-wheeler on the first-ever cross-country automobile trip, to her mother’s home some 60 miles away. There were problems en route—climbing hills—but the trip was completed by nightfall.
What followed this first recorded unauthorized use of an automobile was the first user-inspired improvement of an automobile. Upon returning home, Benz’s sons, Eugen and Richard, complained loudly about all of the uphill pushing they had had to do on their journey. Carl responded by adding a lower gear to his design.
Carl Benz’s family was there when he needed them, but it’s easy to understand why so many others found his three-wheeler a poor substitute for the horse. It was, after all, slower, less aesthetically pleasing, and a good deal less reliable. In the intervening century, however, horses have gotten no faster. Their pollution problem is yet to be solved. They have utterly resisted development.
Cars, on the other hand, started getting better when Bertha decided to teach Carl Benz a lesson in marketing. And they have never stopped.
This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io